Comparison Between Civil Law and Criminal Law

Subject: Law
Pages: 9
Words: 2298
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: School


Criminal law and civil law are fields of law that have been of interest to many because they affect individuals in their daily lives. They both consist of a set of rules that control the conduct of individuals at any given place. Each type of law has got the principles that are applied when dealing with an individual or an organization that has gone against the law. Many people have the knowledge of criminal law simply because the media more often than not gives reports of some criminal trials that have taken place at any time. However, some individuals have no knowledge of any difference between criminal law and civil law, and they at times apply criminal law principles when dealing with civil law.

Criminal law is also called penal law and it involves the government against an individual or a group of people. The parties are the government and an individual or group of individuals. The government prosecutes the individual or the group of people for having committed an act that is in the classifications of crimes. This set of rules basically deals with crimes and punishes those individuals who are found guilty of criminal offenses.

On the other hand, civil law is the set of rules that deal with the rights of private citizens. It settles disputes between individuals or organizations to ensure that the rights of each are followed. It covers areas such as property, contracts, family matters, etc. The parties, in this case, are the plaintiff and the defendant. This paper will seek to compare and contrast criminal and civil law.

History of Criminal Law

Crimes began being committed a long time ago and the way to deal with them led to the development of criminal law. The law has been changing over a long period of time in terms of punishment, rights of victims and offenders, political ideals amongst others. Criminal law was introduced in the United States by the colonists especially those from England, France, and Holland. The English common law lasted than the others and this developed to the current criminal law. During the seventeen century, there were no major differences between criminal law and civil law. The Common Law was used to solve any differences that existed in the society.

The judgments made relied on the decisions that judges in previous similar cases had made and not on laws that had been developed. Later, two types of crimes were developed which were misdemeanors and felonies. A grand jury that was made of a few members of the community decided if there was enough evidence for a person to be punished. There were no public prosecutors or district attorneys to represent the government (John, 2009, prg.4).

The victim in this case was to finance the whole process till the case was over. The lack of legal experts and law resources led to many crimes in the United States. This led to the development of the criminal legal justice system which developed laws that started being applied against individuals who committed crimes such as drunkenness, sexual offenses, idleness, etc. Judges and magistrates developed and a detailed set of rules started being developed. Courts were also developed where hearings took place. The general rules are the ones that have been changed with time to give the different types of laws that are used today in the United States.

History of Civil Law

The system of civil law that is used in the United States has roots in Roman law. The Roman Corpus Juris Civilis that was used by emperor Justinian was adopted by many countries (James & Robert, 2003. p.5). The Roman law has been expounded and developed to give the civil law that is used today. Some countries adopted it and made it their civil law while others used it in the societies where they lived.

The Roman law fell in the fifteenth century but it had already spread in many places and had influenced the conduct of individuals in many countries. The law started by spreading in Europe because most of the trained lawyers that were available were trained in Roman law. The law was also taught in universities in Europe and was adopted by the colonies of the same. In most cases, countries that adopted the law used it as a source to develop their own laws and the development led to the civil law that is used in the United States today.

Categories of Criminal Law

Criminal law in the United States is divided into two broad categories. These are felonies and misdemeanors (Donald, 2009, prg.2). The seriousness of the crime determines the category of the crime. In the united, any criminal offense is referred to as a misdemeanor if the incarceration that it deserves is equal to or less than one year. Those criminal offenses that are more serious than misdemeanors are called felonies and these are offenses where the defendant receives incarceration of not less than one year.

Categories of Civil Law

The major categories of civil law include the law of tort, the law of contract, and the law of property. A tort is a legal wrong and therefore the law of tort defines a set of rights and obligations and remedies that are applied by courts to help those individuals who are injured by the behaviors of others (Nutt, 2009, prg.5). A contract is a legal agreement between individuals or organizations. The parties in a contract agree to perform certain duties or not to perform certain duties and any party who breaches the contract is subject to a remedy that can be agreed upon by the parties and if there was no agreement, the court may decide the remedy. The law that regards these agreements is referred to as contract law. The law of property deals with ownership of property and its conveyance.

Punishment in Criminal Law

Each type of law has punishments that are related to it depending on the severity of the offense. A great difference exists between the punishment in civil law and in criminal law. As stated before, criminal law involves the state through the government prosecutor and an individual. Those defendants who are found guilty of offenses classified as crimes can be punished in three different ways. A defendant can be incarcerated in a prison or a jail for a certain period of time depending on the severity of his or her offense (Ronald, 2009, prg.8). This involves being rocked in the prison or the jail and performing some work that will be assigned every day.

The second case is where the defendant may be required to pay a fine to the government for the crime committed. The third punishment involves the execution of the guilty defendant. Here, the judge pronounces a death penalty to the defendant for the crime that has been committed. The issue of the death penalty has recently brought disagreements between lawmakers and the church on the right to life. Most church leaders feel that the giver of life is the only one who has the right to take the life of a person. Many countries are now changing the sections that regard the death penalty from their constitution.

Criminal law divides crimes into two categories: Misdemeanors and felonies. For misdemeanors, the maximum incarceration sentence that a guilty defendant can receive is less than a year. Felonies are considered more severe crimes and are therefore given a maximum penalty sentence of more than one year.

Punishment in Civil Law

Civil law is applied to individuals or organizations that cause damage to other individuals or organizations as a result of their conduct. Individuals found guilty of crimes are incarcerated or executed but the case is very different for individuals found guilty in civil litigation. If a defendant is found guilty in civil litigation as a result of his or her behavior, he or she is required to reimburse the plaintiff for all the losses that the plaintiff has suffered (Ronald, 2009, prg.8). Punitive damages are awarded depending on the category of the law. Under the law of contract, no punitive damages are awarded.

Punitive damages may be awarded in a tort law depending on the conduct of the defendant in conjunction with if the defendant’s behavior was as a result of negligence, had an intention to cause harm, or ignored the rights of the plaintiff knowingly. Punitive damages are used to warn others in society so that they can respect the rights of fellow individuals in society and help them fear committing wrongful acts on other individuals in the future. Behaviors that lower the dignity of others like invading their privacy and ignoring civil rights mostly lead to punitive damages on part of the defendant. While a defendant cannot purchase insurance to help him or her pays for his or her criminal acts, an individual can purchase insurance that will compensate him or her in claims of tort.

The burden of Proof in Criminal Law

The burden of proof basically means the one to prove that the defendant is guilty. In the case of criminal litigation, the burden of proof is on the side of the government (Richard, 2008, prg.4). Since the case is against the state and the defendant, the state must prove that the conduct of a defendant can be described as a crime under the law. Until proven guilty, the defendant is assumed to be innocent and he or she has nothing to prove.

Exceptions exist only if the defendant claims to be insane and hence not guilty. Here, the defendant bears the burden of proving his or her insanity to the state. Also, if the defendant claims that the act was in self-defense or duress, he or she may be required to prove it. In proving the defendant guilty in criminal law, the state must show that the conduct of the defendant meets each and every definition of crime in the statutory.

The state must also prove that the defendant participated in the conduct that is charged against him or her. The proof that the state gives must be beyond any reasonable doubt. There is a requirement that a probability that a guilty person committed the crime to be provided. In most cases, the requirement is that there should be a ninety-eight or a ninety-nine percent probability that a person is guilty and he or she performed the act. However, determining the probability is quite hard especially when a numerical value is required.

The burden of Proof in Civil Law

The burden of proof in a civil case is different from that in a criminal case. This is basically because the parties in the case this time are the plaintiff and the defendant. It is the responsibility of the plaintiff to prove the defendant guilty of an allegation (Richard, 2008, prg.2). The plaintiff has to prove that the defendant performed an act on him or her that is against the law. In the case of civil law, there are situations where the defendant bears the burden of proof. For example, if the evidence by a plaintiff on the very first time appears to be false or erroneous according to the defendant, the defendant has to prove that the information by the plaintiff is false and erroneous. After the case is listened to in a court of law, the plaintiff will win if the evidence that he or she puts forward bears more weight than any claims by the defendant.

If the evidence by a plaintiff convinces the jury that there is a fifty percent probability that the behavior of the defendant caused injury to the plaintiff and that this was caused by the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff will definitely win the case. In comparison to criminal law where there must be at least a ninety-eight percent probability proof by the state, this standard is very low. Defendants might be required to pay large sums of money if the plaintiff proves that they are guilty of causing injury. In some claims in tort, the plaintiff must provide evidence that is clear and convincing to the jury and the standard of the proof must be higher than a preponderance. However, the evidence is usually below the reasonable doubt.


Criminal law and civil law differ in various areas and the principles that are applied in each case are different. Criminal law deals with the conduct of individuals that can be classified as crimes. Civil law deals with individuals’ and organizations’ conduct that cause injury to other individuals and organizations. Criminal law in the United States was introduced by the colonialists especially in England. It developed from the English common law and changes were made that led to the current criminal law. Civil law has its root in Roman law and then came to the United States from the same colonies.

Criminal law is divided into two categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Misdemeanors have incarceration sentences that have a maximum of less than a year while felonies have incarceration sentences that have maximum incarceration of more than a year. Civil law has three major categories that include the law of tort, the law of contract, and the law of property. Individuals found guilty of criminal law are punished depending on the seriousness of the crime committed.

The criminal may be incarcerated in a jail or prison, be fined, or be executed. In civil law, an individual found guilty in civil litigation as a result of his or her behavior is required to reimburse the plaintiff for all the losses that the plaintiff has suffered. In criminal law, it is the responsibility of the state to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil law, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff.

Reference List

Donald, M.K. (2009). Criminal Offenses. Web.

James, G.A. & Robert, P. D. (2003). A Primer on the civil Law System. Web.

John, A. S. (2009). Concept of Justice Past and Present. Historical Developments of Theories of Crime and Punishment. Web.

Nutt, A. (2009). Criminal and Civil Law differences. Web.

Richard, J. (2008). Burden of Proof. Web.

Ronald, B. S. (2009). Differences between Criminal and Civil Law in the USA. Web.